Only once in Idaho’s electoral history had voters rejected a law passed by the state legislature, and it happened all the way back in 1936. Our task this past cycle was to convince Idaho voters to do it again, this time rejecting three education-related laws passed by a Republican super majority in the state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

 In a state as deeply red as Idaho—one we knew Republican nominee Mitt Romney would win by a wide margin in November—it was no easy task to convince voters to reject the GOP establishment and essentially side with collective bargaining proponents.

It was in early 2011 when the Idaho legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, the package we had to convince voters to reject. The package of bills had been dubbed “Students Come First,” and when they passed, there was an initial public outcry in some quarters over the far-reaching laws which would effectively gut collective bargaining rights for teachers and impose a costly requirement that laptop computers be purchased for high school students so they could take controversial online classes.

The laws provoked controversy by coming out of the blue. There had been no hue and cry for so-called “education reform.” Restricting teachers’ bargaining rights and the laptop-mandate left many people scratching their heads. Yet barely more than two months after they were introduced, they were passed.

A coalition of parents and teachers that opposed the laws launched a petition drive in the spring and collected enough signatures to put the measures on the November 2012 ballot for potential repeal. But thanks to Idaho’s history of supporting what was passed by the state legislature, it was widely assumed the laws would survive.

We were also swimming against the tide that had swept other anti-collective bargaining laws into place in other parts of the country. And not only was Idaho solidly in the Romney win-column, but Mormons comprised 25 percent of the electorate so we anticipated Romney would be deployed as a messenger for the other side (which he was).

I served as the general consultant and campaign manager for the “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 & 3” campaign. Grove Insight handled polling and focus group work; broadcast, cable and radio ads were produced by Envision Communications and The New Media Firm; Winning Mark handled direct mail and our pre-roll web videos; Stones’ Phones did targeted phone calls and telephone town halls.

Armed with a budget of nearly $3 million, due to the generous support of the National Education Association, the Idaho Education Association and the backing of more than 800 individual Idahoans, we spent a sizable chunk on traditional media. We also ran a very robust social media campaign that invested heavily in banner ads and pre-roll video ads on targeted websites.

Between a communications plan that employed local messengers and a highly targeted traditional and online media campaign, we overcame an electoral environment that was otherwise hostile to an organized labor-backed effort. What follows is the story of how we did it.

The ‘toxic’ man behind the plan

When Tom Luna, the state superintendent for public instruction, ran for reelection in 2010, he lauded the progress being made in Idaho’s public schools. Two months after being reelected, he sang a different tune. In early January, Luna told reporters “nobody has been satisfied with the results that we’ve been getting from the current system.” Two days later, before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees, Luna unveiled his “Students Come First” plan. The plan proposed to remove job protection for new teachers, use technology as more of a substitute than a supplement for face-to-face classroom learning, and raise the real prospect of larger class sizes.

All of this was being proposed without any input from Idaho’s teachers or parents. The Idaho Statesman and Lewiston Tribune questioned whether Luna could claim a mandate for his plan when he did not spell it out on the previous fall’s campaign trail. Luna was undeterred.

The next week, the legislature’s Joint Finance Appropriations Committee held its first-ever public hearing on education funding. Hundreds of people got in line as the Capitol doors opened at 6:30 a.m. Nearly 80 people testified during the four-hour meeting. All but 14 opposed Luna’s proposals. The same thing happened when public testimony on the actual legislation began. A total of 127 people signed up to speak. All but 16 of them were against the bills.

Despite Luna spearheading the effort, not all GOP lawmakers fell into line. Republican state Sen. Dean Cameron, who chairs the finance committee in the legislature, spoke out against the laptop-mandate bill.

“I’m voting against this bill because…not one stakeholder is supporting it—not the superintendents, not the school boards, not the teachers, not the parents. Every single stakeholder… has testified opposed to it,” Cameron explained at the time. It was a quote that later appeared in the arguments of the Vote No campaign in the state voter guide.

When the bills were finally passed in March, all of the Democratic legislators voted in opposition. They were joined by nine of Idaho’s 28 GOP Senators, and 13 of the 57 House Republicans. Some in the GOP paid a price for their opposition. Dean Cameron faced a primary challenge. He survived, but his colleague, Republican state Sen. Tim Corder, who had also opposed the Luna bills, was defeated in a primary.

Support for public education in Idaho cuts across party lines. Forcing some Republican lawmakers to walk the gang plank for opposing would be education reform did not go over well with GOP-leaning Independent voters. Moreover, our polling showed that not only were teachers revered in Idaho, but the Idaho Education Association was viewed more favorably than any of the proponents of these laws, including Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter.

When we asked Idaho voters who they blamed for the problems facing public schools, 48 percent of them pointed to elected officials for failing to adequately fund the schools as their combined first and second choices. For 33 percent, it was the top choice.

By contrast, only 17 percent blamed the teachers’ unions for making it hard to fire bad teachers as their first choice. Yet the Republican establishment repeatedly touted the fact that the governor and the legislature had passed these “sound reforms” as a reason for voters to embrace them. Party leaders treated the ballot measure fight as if it were like any other campaign where they could deliver the marching orders on how to vote and the rank-and-file would fall in line.

More than 3,000 volunteered to collect the signatures needed to put the propositions on the ballot. Many of them were subsequently part of the Vote No campaign’s field operation.

Two groups, Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform, which represented parents, and the Idaho Education Association (IEA), which represented teachers, organized the 2011 petition drive. In the spring of 2012, they launched the “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 & 3” campaign.

We learned several important things in the focus groups and polling conducted by Grove Insight. People had little recollection of what these laws were about and needed to be reminded. But if they remembered anything, it was that they didn’t like the legislation because of Tom Luna.

Luna was a polarizing figure. He was seen by many as a politician looking to reward his campaign contributors—the operators of “virtual schools” that offered online classes.

Half of the Republicans in our survey gave him negative marks on his job performance. That led to our early decision to brand these propositions as the “Luna Laws” in our messaging.

Finding the right language and medium

While we were confident that using the Luna Laws label would help, we had to make sure we didn’t put too much focus on Luna and his donors. We needed to emphasize the larger point that these laws hurt students and teachers.

So we also used web-based surveys to test our ads and gained valuable insights on how best to convey the damage these laws would inflict on students. Saying kids would be treated like “widgets on the assembly line” was good prose, but we found that the actual images turned voters of.

Another important piece of information we gleaned from our research was the adverse feelings people ad about the laptop mandate—Proposition 3. The notion that taxpayers would have to foot the bill so students could take online classes provided by for-profit, out-of-state companies cut against the grain of the state’s fiscal conservatism.

The Yes side was slow in getting out of the starting blocks and that gave the Vote No campaign an opening to define the campaign on our terms— it was about what was best for the students and the future of public education in Idaho.

The gist of our message was that these laws were a top-down, one size-fits-all mandate imposed by politicians in Boise who were intent on silencing the voices of teachers in the discussion of how to improve Idaho’s schools.

We still faced the challenge of getting our message out in a complex media environment. Large parts of rural Idaho, particularly up north, were populated by people with satellite dishes that do not show local advertisements. So we ran a very robust social media campaign that invested heavily in banner ads and pre-roll videos on targeted websites.

Idaho has some 800,000 registered voters and approximately 643,420 Facebook users. Turnout is typically high in a presidential year (higher than 80 percent), so Facebook became an important platform for driving our message. We deployed multiple Facebook pages to appeal to specific segments of the electorate. In addition to the Vote No page, active discussions took place on the pages of Idaho Conservatives Voting No on Props 1,2,3, Students Against the Luna Laws and Idaho Businesses for Responsible Education Reform.

We engaged with voters from across the political spectrum—from Tea Party supporters to liberal Democrats. We preempted the traditional Labor Day campaign kick-off of radio and TV ad wars by running banner ads and pre-roll web videos produced by Winning Mark in August. We had reserved spaces on relevant “hyper local” websites in anticipation of a back-to-school campaign aimed at the parents of school-age children.

We used the Google Display Network and embedded YouTube videos in “promoted posts” on the timeline and sidebar of Facebook users. One example: For years, many Idaho teachers had been spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy supplies that the schools failed to provide. As parents shopped online for school items for their kids, they saw a banner ad that asked, “Guess who else is buying school supplies for your kids?” Answer: Teachers. We collected Internet Protocol addresses, used geographic (zip code) targeting and overlaid it with demographic data from our polling to run a strong online program right up to Election Day.

Our online activities yielded great results. A typical three-week program resulted in over 631,000 impressions and 2,000 likes on Facebook, 56,880 views and 1,800 clicks on YouTube and 865,000 impressions on the Google Display Network with a click through rate of just less than 1 percent.

The viral sharing of our social media exceeded our expectations. By the conclusion of the campaign, we had reached 479,165 people on Facebook—75 percent of all the Facebook users in the state. Not straying from the message, a large part of our messaging strategy was the use of local messengers to talk to the media and to voters—parents and many teachers who were viewed very favorably. They appeared in our TV ads and pre-roll web videos.

For example, we had a mom who delivered a simple but poignant message about her daughter: “Until she was five, I was Kelsey’s first teacher. Now I rely on the strength and dedication of Idaho’s teachers to help Kelsey learn. But since the legislature passed Props 1, 2 and 3— over 1,800 Idaho teachers have left teaching. I want my daughter to get a great education but the Luna laws and their top down mandates are driving away some of our best and brightest teachers. Nothing’s more important to me than Kelsey’s education. Props 1, 2 and 3 are just too big of a risk.”

Many teachers felt like they had a target on their backs. Polling showed they needed to be loud and proud, and that was an important part of how we delivered our message. Our volunteer phone banks were staffed largely by teachers.

As the election drew near, we conducted telephone town halls that targeted men and voters from rural and low-range communication areas. This format gave us the chance to have more in-depth discussions about the three propositions. Knowing that part of our audience was suspicious of this “union fight,” conversations were led by a local parent or teacher.

When our campaign was attacked for allegedly being a pawn for the teachers’ union, we didn’t bite the bait. We focused relentlessly on what these laws would mean for Idaho’s students, and reinforced what we learned from our polling—Idaho’s elected officials were seen as the chief culprit. They had been underfunding public education for many years. This in turn put a greater burden on local taxpayers to make up the difference, and they didn’t like it.

Republicanism in Idaho is streaked with Rocky Mountain libertarian beliefs. These voters don’t like government. But they like teachers. Making it harder for teachers to do their jobs didn’t make sense to independent, but fair-minded conservative voters. By having teachers tell their personal stories of the conditions under which they worked and pointing to the “brain drain” of a growing number of teachers leaving the profession, we struck a responsive chord. It was important that we had genuine conservative support. When critical comments appeared on the Facebook page of Idaho Conservatives Voting No, responses came from a Tea Party activist who also posted links to his writings on why he opposed the laws.

We were also able to take advantage of some strategic missteps on the part of the opposition. We fully expected the other side would see what we saw in our polling—Tom Luna was toxic—and that he would eventually be put on the bench. But it never happened. Luna’s performance at a widely-covered October debate drew moans at one point from the sellout crowd. Our side was ably represented by retiring Democratic state Rep. Brian Cronin and the head of Idaho operations for Strategies 360. Cronin made a forceful case for how the Luna Laws were shaped by a fiscal crisis and not a need for education reform. He called the laws a plan for doing “education on the cheap” and denounced them as a “bait-and-switch con.”

The other side made an initial effort to sell these laws as an essential part of a 21st century education for Idaho’s students. But as things heated up, they resorted to warning voters of the undue influence of the teachers union if the laws were rejected. The most overt union-bashing came from Frank VanderSloot, a very wealthy entrepreneur and a national finance co-chair for the Romney campaign. He underwrote much of the advertising by various groups supporting the Luna Laws.

VanderSloot’s company, Melaleuca, ran a number of full-page newspaper ads denouncing the “union bosses (who) have declared war on education reform.” The ads were loaded with a lot of copy and fine print. VanderSloot had money to burn.

By the end of the campaign, he had spent nearly $2 million on radio, TV and print. Mitt Romney made a late appearance in a VanderSloot funded spot. It was an excerpt from a Romney speech where he castigates the teachers unions for standing in the way of education reform.

The election results weren’t even close. Propositions 1, 2, & 3 were overwhelmingly rejected. 57 percent voted “No” to restricting the rights of teachers in Proposition 1. 58 percent voted “No” to linking teacher performance to student test scores in Proposition 2. 67 percent voted “No” to the laptop and online course mandate in Proposition 3.

The “No” vote on Prop 3 garnered more votes than Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, which received 65 percent of the vote in Idaho. By running what one commentator called “a smart, disciplined campaign” and capitalizing on the widespread popularity of teachers, we were able easily to overcome the union-bashing of our opponents.

Those who are intent on trying to curb the influence of public employee unions should heed the lesson here. Be careful going after teachers. They are beloved.

David Williams was the general consultant and campaign manager for the Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, and 3 campaign. He is the founder and President of Southpaw Associates.